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  • District Court issues judgment against student debt relief operation

    Courts

    On June 10, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California entered a stipulated final judgment and order against an individual defendant who participated in a deceptive debt-relief operation. As previously covered by InfoBytes, in 2019, the Bureau, along with the Minnesota and North Carolina attorneys general, and the Los Angeles City Attorney (together, the “states”), announced an action against the student loan debt relief operation for allegedly deceiving thousands of student-loan borrowers and charging more than $71 million in unlawful advance fees. In the third amended complaint, the Bureau and the states alleged that since at least 2015, the debt relief operation violated the CFPA, TSR, FDCPA, and various state laws by charging and collecting improper advance fees from student loan borrowers prior to providing assistance and receiving payments on the adjusted loans. In addition, the Bureau and the states claimed that the debt relief operation engaged in deceptive practices by, among other things, misrepresenting: (i) the purpose and application of fees they charged; (ii) their ability to obtain loan forgiveness for borrowers; and (iii) their ability to actually lower borrowers’ monthly payments. Moreover, the debt relief operation allegedly failed to inform borrowers that it was their practice to request that the loans be placed in forbearance and also submitted false information to student loan servicers to qualify borrowers for lower payments.

    Under the terms of the final judgment, in addition to various forms of injunctive relief, the individual defendant must pay a $1 civil money penalty to the Bureau and $5,000 each to Minnesota, North Carolina, and California. The individual defendant is also “liable, jointly and severally, in the amount of $95,057,757, for the purpose of providing redress to Affected Consumers,” although his obligation to pay this amount is “suspended based on [his] inability to pay.”

    Courts CFPB Enforcement Consumer Finance Settlement Debt Relief TSR CFPA FDCPA State Issues State Attorney General

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  • CFPB settles with student-loan debt relief company

    Federal Issues

    On June 9, the CFPB filed a stipulated final judgment and order in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California resolving allegations that the operator of a student-loan debt relief company engaged in unfair debiting of consumer accounts, in violation of the CFPA. According to the complaint, in 2016, the defendant founded a student debt relief company, which “did not solicit new consumers, but instead obtained student-loan account and billing information for hundreds of former [student debt relief operation] consumers without the knowledge or consent of those consumers.” As previously covered by InfoBytes, in 2016, the CFPB filed a consent order against a San Diego-based student debt relief operation for alleged violations of the CFPA, the TSR, and Regulation P by deceiving borrowers into paying fees for federal loan benefits and misrepresenting to consumers that it was affiliated with the Department of Education. The CFPB alleged that the defendant led a debt collection scheme by withdrawing $39 per month, and collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars in total fees from student borrowers’ bank accounts, without authorization, after previously obtaining their names and account information from the former student loan debt relief business. According to the CFPB, “under this scheme, [the defendant’s] company had unlawfully debited more than $240,000 from hundreds of student borrowers’ accounts.” Under the terms of the settlement, the defendant is permanently banned from engaging in debt relief services and must pay a $175,000 penalty to the CFPB.

    Federal Issues Enforcement CFPB Student Lending Debt Relief Consumer Education CFPA UDAAP TSR Regulation P Consumer Finance

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  • District Court issues judgment against student debt relief operation

    Federal Issues

    On May 24, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California entered a stipulated final judgment and order against an individual defendant who participated in a deceptive debt-relief enterprise operation. As previously covered by InfoBytes, in 2019, the CFPB, along with the Minnesota and North Carolina attorneys general, and the Los Angeles City Attorney (together, the “states”), announced an action against the student loan debt relief operation for allegedly deceiving thousands of student-loan borrowers and charging more than $71 million in unlawful advance fees. In the third amended complaint, the Bureau and the states alleged that since at least 2015 the debt relief operation violated the CFPA, TSR, FDCPA, and various state laws by charging and collecting improper advance fees from student loan borrowers prior to providing assistance and receiving payments on the adjusted loans. In addition, the Bureau and the states claimed that the debt relief operation engaged in deceptive practices by misrepresenting, among other things: (i) the purpose and application of fees they charged; (ii) their ability to obtain loan forgiveness for borrowers; and (iii) their ability to actually lower borrowers’ monthly payments. Moreover, the debt relief operation allegedly failed to inform borrowers that it was their practice to request that the loans be placed in forbearance and also submitted false information to student loan servicers to qualify borrowers for lower payments. Under the terms of the final judgment, the individual defendant must pay a $483,662 civil money penalty to the Bureau.

    Federal Issues Courts CFPB Consumer Finance Enforcement Student Lending Debt Relief State Issues State Attorney General CFPA TSR FDCPA Settlement

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  • CFPB enters proposed final judgment in TSR and CFPA violation suit

    Federal Issues

    On April 29, the CFPB filed a proposed stipulated final judgment and order in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California resolving allegations that a student loan debt relief business and a general debt-settlement company, along with their owner and CEO (collectively, “defendants”), engaged in wrongful fee-charging practices and deceptive telemarketing. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the CFPB filed a complaint against the defendants for allegedly violating the Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR) and the Consumer Financial Protection Act (CFPA) by charging illegal advance fees and using deceptive tactics to induce consumers to sign up for services. According to the complaint, from 2015 to the present, the defendants allegedly charged consumers upfront fees for the debt-relief company to file paperwork with the Department of Education to obtain loan consolidation, loan forgiveness, or income-driven repayment plans. Some consumers paid the upfront fee using a third-party financing company and paid an APR between 17 and 22 percent. The CFPB also alleged that the defendants required some consumers to pay the fee in installments into a trust plan, which carried a $6 monthly banking fee paid to the administrator of the trust accounts. The Bureau alleged that the defendants failed to provide the proper disclosures under the TSR. Moreover, the complaint asserted that from 2019 to the present, the defendants violated the CFPA by representing to consumers that they were turned down for a loan in order to pitch the company’s settlement services. Under the terms of the proposed settlement, the student loan debt relief business and the general debt-settlement company are permanently banned from engaging in debt relief services, and the CEO is banned for five years.

    The CEO is also required to pay a civil monetary penalty of $30,000 to the CFPB.

    Federal Issues CFPB Enforcement Student Lending Department of Education Telemarketing Sales Rule CFPA Debt Relief

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  • District Court enters $2.8 million judgment in CFPB student debt relief action

    Courts

    On March 22, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California entered a stipulated final judgment and order against one of the defendants in an action brought by the CFPB, the Minnesota and North Carolina attorneys general, and the Los Angeles City Attorney, alleging a student loan debt relief operation deceived thousands of student-loan borrowers and charged more than $71 million in unlawful advance fees. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the complaint asserted that the defendants violated the CFPA, the Telemarketing Sales Rule, and various state laws. Amended complaints (see here and here) also added new defendants and included claims for avoidance of fraudulent transfers under the Federal Debt Collection Procedures Act and California’s Uniform Voidable Transactions Act, among other things. A stipulated final judgment and order was entered against the named defendant in July (covered by InfoBytes here), which required the payment of more than $35 million in redress to affected consumers, a $1 civil money penalty to the Bureau, and $5,000 in civil money penalties to each of the three states. The court also previously entered final judgments against several of the defendants, as well as a default judgment and order against two other defendants and a settlement with two non-parties (covered by InfoBytes here, here, here, here, and here).

    The final judgment issued against the settling defendant, who neither admitted nor denied the allegations except as specifically stated, permanently bans the defendant from participating in telemarking services or offering or selling debt-relief services, and prohibits it from misrepresenting benefits consumers may receive from a product or service. The defendant is also permanently restrained from violating applicable state laws, and may not disclose, use, or benefit from customer information obtained in connection with the offering or providing of the debt relief services. The settlement orders the defendant to pay more than $2.8 million in consumer redress, as well as a $1 civil money penalty to the Bureau and $5,000 to each of the three states.

    Courts CFPB Enforcement State Attorney General State Issues CFPA UDAAP Telemarketing Sales Rule FDCPA Student Lending Debt Relief Consumer Finance Settlement

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  • 11th Circuit affirms $23 million judgment against founder of debt relief operation

    Courts

    On March 9, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of the FTC and the Florida attorney general after finding that an individual defendant could be held liable for the actions of the entities he controlled. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the FTC and the Florida AG filed a complaint in 2016 against several interrelated companies and the individual defendant who founded the companies, alleging violations of the FTC Act, the Telemarketing Sales Rule, and the Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act. The complaint alleged that the defendants engaged in a scheme that targeted financially distressed consumers through illegal robocalls selling bogus credit card debt relief services and interest rate reductions. Among other things, the defendants also claimed to be “licensed enrollment center[s]” for major credit card networks with the ability to work with a consumer’s credit card company or bank to substantially and permanently lower credit card interest rates and charged up-front payments for debt relief and rate-reduction services. In 2018, the court granted the FTC and the Florida AG’s motion for summary judgment, finding there was no genuine dispute that the individual defendant controlled the defendant entities, that he knew his employees were making false representations, and that he failed to stop them. The court entered a permanent injunction, which ordered the individual defendant to pay over $23 million in equitable monetary relief and permanently restrained and enjoined the individual defendant from participating—whether directly or indirectly—in telemarketing; advertising, marketing, selling, or promoting any debt relief products or services; or misrepresenting material facts.

    The individual defendant appealed, arguing that there were genuine disputes over whether: (i) he controlled the entities; (ii) he had knowledge that employees were making misrepresentations and failed to prevent them; (iii) employee affidavits “attesting that they had saved customers money created an issue of fact about whether his programs did what he said they would do”; and (iv) he had knowledge of “rogue employees” violating the “do not call” registry to solicit customers.

    On appeal, the 11th Circuit determined that the facts presented by the individual defendant did not create a genuine dispute about whether he controlled the entities, and further stated that the individual defendant is liable for the employees’ misrepresentations because of his control of the entities and his knowledge of those misrepresentations. The appellate court explained that while the individual defendant argued that he could not be liable because he did not participate in those representations, he failed to present any evidence in support of that argument and, even if he had, “it wouldn’t matter, because [the individual defendant’s] liability stems from his control of [the companies], not from his individual conduct.” Additionally, the appellate court held that whether the services were helpful to customers was immaterial and did not absolve him of liability, because liability for deceptive sales practices does not require worthlessness. As to the “do not call” registry violations, the appellate court disagreed with the individual defendant’s claim that an “outside dialer or lead generator”—not the company—placed the outbound calls, holding that this excuse also does not absolve him of liability.

    Courts Appellate Eleventh Circuit Telemarketing Enforcement Debt Relief State Issues State Attorney General Florida FTC Act TSR

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  • FTC bans debt relief scheme operators

    Federal Issues

    On February 28, the FTC announced the permanent ban of the operators (collectively, “defendants”) of a debt relief scheme from processing debt relief payments and ordered the defendants to pay a $5.3 million fine. According to the FTC’s July 2020 complaint, which was filed jointly with the Florida attorney general in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, the defendants allegedly engaged in deceptive and abusive practices by selling their credit card interest rate reduction services to consumers in violation of the FTC Act, the Telemarketing Sales Rule, and the Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act. The FTC and Florida AG claimed that the defendants utilized telemarketing calls promising to reduce consumers’ credit card interest rates permanently and substantially, and, after posing as representatives or affiliates of consumers’ credit card companies, the defendants allegedly claimed they could save consumers thousands of dollars in credit card interest and enable them to pay off their debt faster. The complaint also asserted that the defendants, at times, opened new credit cards that offered low introductory interest rates and transferred the balances of consumers’ existing debt to the new cards. For that, customers paid upfront fees of between $995 and $4,995 while also paying “substantial” fees to transfer the balances.

    Under the terms of the settlement, the operators are permanently prohibited from participating the debt relief industry, misrepresenting material facts in connection with any product or service, and engaging in deceptive and abusive telemarketing acts and practices, unsubstantiated claims, and other payment practices. Two individual defendants agreed to pay a $225,000 monetary penalty and the other defendant agreed to pay $200,000.

    Federal Issues FTC Enforcement State Issues State Attorney General Courts Florida UDAP Debt Relief Consumer Finance FTC Act TSR

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  • District Court orders debt-relief company to pay $41.1 million CMP

    Courts

    On February 7, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois entered a default judgment and order against a debt-relief company (default defendant) accused of allegedly violating the Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR) and the Consumer Financial Protection Act. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the Bureau filed the complaint in 2020 alleging that the company and its two owners (collectively, “defendants”) misrepresented material aspects of their student loan debt-relief services, and violated the TSR by requesting and receiving payment of disproportionate fees for their services before they altered or resolved the terms of the debts. The judgment against the default defendant imposes both permanent injunctive relief and monetary remedies including a $41.1 million civil monetary penalty. The default defendant must also pay $2.1 million in consumer restitution and is permanently enjoined from participating in the financial-advisory, debt-relief, or credit-repair service markets in any way, including through marketing or ownership of such services.

    Courts CFPB Enforcement Debt Relief Debt Settlement CFPA Telemarketing Sales Rule

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  • House passes America COMPETES Act

    Federal Issues

    On February 4, the U.S. House passed, by a vote of 222-210, the “America Creating Opportunities for Manufacturing Pre-Eminence in Technology and Economic Strength (COMPETES) Act” H.R. 4521, which aims to strengthen the competitiveness of the U.S. economy and U.S. businesses, and counters anti-competitive actions taken by the People’s Republic of China. The COMPETES Act includes provisions affecting financial services, such as:

    • U.S. Policy on World Bank Group and Asian Development Bank Loans to China. This provision would, among other things, direct Treasury to vote against any loans to China from the World Bank or Asian Development Bank under certain circumstances, and allow borrowing countries to seek restructuring of China loans in official multilateral debt relief forums.
    • Prohibitions or Conditions on Certain Transmittal of Funds. This provision would streamline the process by which special measures may be introduced and modernizes the authorities granted to the FinCEN by permitting the agency to pursue bad actors.
    • Study on Chinese Support for Afghan Illicit Finance. This provision would direct Treasury’s Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence to brief Congress on the identification and analysis of Chinese economic, commercial, and financial connections to Afghanistan, to include illicit financial networks involved in narcotics trafficking, illicit financial transactions, official corruption, natural resources exploitation, and terrorist networks.
    • Support for Debt Relief for Developing Countries. This provision would direct the Treasury secretary and U.S. representatives at the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to engage with international financial institutions, official creditors, and relevant commercial creditor groups to advocate for the effective implementation of the G-20’s Common Framework.

    Federal Issues Federal Legislation U.S. House FinCEN Financial Crimes Debt Relief G20 China

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  • FTC settles with remaining student debt relief defendants

    Federal Issues

    On January 26, the FTC announced settlements with the remaining participants in a student loan debt relief operation. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the FTC filed a complaint against the defendants for allegedly using telemarketing calls, as well as media advertisements, to enroll consumers in student debt relief services in violation of the FTC Act and the Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR). The defendants allegedly misrepresented that they were affiliated with the U.S. Department of Education and misrepresented “material aspects of their debt relief services,” including by promising to enroll consumers in repayment programs to reduce or eliminate payments and balances. Additionally, the defendants allegedly charged illegal upfront fees, and often placed the consumers’ loans into temporary forbearance or deferments with their student loan servicers, without the consumer’s authorization. A $43 million settlement was reached in 2020 with certain of the defendants that was partially suspended conditioned upon the surrender of at least $835,000, as well as additional assets.

    The FTC entered two settlements against the remaining defendants. The first settlement imposes a roughly $7.5 million monetary judgment, which is partially suspended after the individual defendant pays $743,386. The second settlement includes a $22 million monetary judgment, which is also partially suspended based on the defendants’ inability to pay. The settlement also requires the defendants to forfeit all frozen funds held by the receiver. Monies recovered in the action will go towards consumer refunds. Additionally, the defendants are banned from providing any debt relief products and services in the future, and are prohibited from making misrepresentations in connection with the sale of any products or services or from making any unsubstantiated claims. Defendants are also enjoined from violating the TSR.

    Federal Issues FTC Enforcement Student Lending Debt Relief Consumer Finance FTC Act Telemarketing Sales Rule Settlement

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